We Need Gattaca to Prevent Skynet and Global Warming

By Kyle Munkittrick | November 10, 2010 6:54 pm

If only they'd kept Jimmy Carter's solar panels on there, this whole thing could have been avoided.

Independence Day has one of my most favorite hero duos of all time: Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Brawn and brains, flyboy and nerd, working together to take out the baddies. It all comes down to one flash of insight on behalf of a drunk Goldblum after being chastised by his father. Cliché eureka! moments like Goldblum’s realization that he can give the mothership a “cold” are great until you realize one thing: if Goldblum hadn’t been as smart as he was, the movie would have ended much differently. No one in the film was even close to figuring out how to defeat the aliens. Will Smith was in a distant second place and he had only discovered that they are vulnerable to face punches. The hillbilly who flew his jet fighter into the alien destruct-o-beam doesn’t count, because he needed a force-field-free spaceship for his trick to work. If Jeff Goldblum hadn’t been a super-genius, humanity would have been annihilated.

Every apocalyptic film seems to trade on the idea that there will be some lone super-genius to figure out the problem. In The Day The Earth Stood Still (both versions) Professor Barnhardt manages to convince Klaatu to give humanity a second look. Cleese’s version of the character had a particularly moving “this is our moment” speech. Though it’s eventually the love between a mother and child that triggers Klaatu’s mercy, Barnhardt is the one who opens Klaatu to the possibility. Over and over we see the lone super-genius helping to save the world.

Shouldn’t we want, oh, I don’t know, at least more than one super-genius per global catastrophe? I’d like to think so. And where might we get some more geniuses? you may ask. We make them.

In his essay, “The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis”, philosopher David Chalmers notes that there is a very real chance that if machines become self-aware and start improving themselves, we’re going to have a problem (*cough* Skynet *cough* Liquid T-1000 *cough, cough*). One of his potential solutions is to enhance ourselves to keep up:

This might be done genetically, pharmacologically, surgically, or even educationally. It might be done through implantation of new computational mechanisms in the brain, either replacing or extending existing brain mechanisms. Or it might be done simply by embedding the brain in an ever more sophisticated environment, producing an “extended mind” whose capacities far exceed that of an unextended brain.

Does any of that sound familiar? Perhaps a little film called Gattaca may ring some bells? Chalmers is arguing enhancement may be necessary to prevent extinction. Why not extrapolate that logic to other existential risks. Alien invasion? Superhumans would probably put up a better fight. Skynet goes live? An army of hackers with a collective IQ of 200+ and neuro-integrated interfaces would clean that up in a jiffy. But what about our current problems? Although heavy-handed, the message in both versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that humanity’s greatest existential threat is itself. War, suffering, poverty, and environmental destruction all seem like problems that would merit allowing our best and brightest to become even better and brighter for the sake of everyone.

A common fear is that the super-intelligent would just step on us normals, creating second-class citizens. Enhancement doesn’t just mean the ability to do complex equations and create new molecular compounds; raw intellectual horsepower is just one among many possibilities. We know that some people have moral problems caused by damage to specific parts of their brain. As neuroscience progresses, there is a very real possibility we’ll be able to improve those specific parts of the moral brain. I don’t mean we’d have a society of lock-step rule followers, but instead people who were genuinely better at being moral than most of us. Can you imagine a world where politicians had improved ethical scruples? Or, to put it simply, where the most brilliant minds were also the most caring?

Which brings me back to Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day. Not only does he come up with the solution, but he selflessly gets in the nuke-strapped UFO with Will Smith to fly into the middle of the enemy mothership. Same for professor Barnhardt, who is as good at moral philosophy as it seems he is math, attempting to show Klaatu the best of our species.

In science fiction, when humanity is faced with existential crises, we turn to great minds attached to great hearts. While we aren’t under alien attack or facing sentient machines, our world has its own share of problems. Human cognitive enhancement might just be the solution from which all other solutions are born; or maybe it brings too many risks of its own.

ID4 Promotional Image via Wikipedia under fair use

Comments (13)

  1. megan

    As a once member of Mensa, stepping on each other seemed more satisfying than crushing mere puny intelligent humans. Let them die of stupidity. Only there’s no place to hide from them on the planet.

  2. Messier Tidy Upper

    Can you imagine a world where politicians had improved ethical scruples?

    It wouldn’t be any different – because the politicians with ethics would lose to the ones without them willing to do whatever it takes to get voted in just as happens today. :-(

    Cynical, depressing & I fear true. Sorry. :-(

    What we arguably need is to get something like Asimov’s ‘Council of Science’ (the Lucky Starr novels) running the planet – but that’s opening a whole other can of worms.

    Or maybe Heinlein’s idea of restricting voting to those intelligent enough to make rational, good decisions – but ditto.

  3. @Megan: Are you saying the reason Mensa is viewed as a largely useless and ineffectual organization of self-important wannabes and failed-to-launch pseudo-boffins is because of infighting? I was worried it was because IQ is not a meaningful indicator of how much you’ll actually contribute to society. Whew.

    @Messier Tidy Upper: But if the voting public gets smarter through enhancement then… ah then they won’t vote. Crud.

  4. Social networks of agents are higher level agents in higher level social networks. Who is best positioned to substrate jump? Who is best positioned to dissolve their higher organization to form new optimizing ones? I’d like to bet that humans are the best positioned agent/social network level, but how statistically probable is that?

    What’s the likelihood that the future belongs to either memes without theatre-of-consciousness personalities, or organizations without humans?

    Whatever would compete with us, let’s hope they waste as least as much resources bullshitting on these topics.

  5. If we take the Gattaca approach, who is going to decide what is desirable or not?

    Perhaps, maybe, we should take a leaf out of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, and create secular monastic orders… but unlike Mensa, which sounds like it’s full of people who need to prove to themselves, and to others – that they are smart. Just seems like they’re insecure.

    After all, what does being a member of Mensa give you? Sweet Fanny Adams.

  6. Aleksandar Kuktin

    We are the pawns of Nature. And Nature does not give a rat’s — about us.

    What gives people a “righteous” society is not abundance of smart or able people, it is the permissive environment.

    For example, in “Independence day”, Goldblum did come up with a solution, but only because there was a solution to come to in the first place! If the aliens did their homework like they were supposed to, there would be no security vulnerability for Goldblum’s character to exploit, no solution, and humanity would have died out.
    In reality, what saved humanity was not a lone genius, but a lucky opening in the environment.

    Same goes for the real life.

  7. @6 …and if the aliens were smart enough to get here in the first place, with a huge invasion force ready for the conquering and destruction of the planet, somehow I don’t think that they’d make that stupid mistake of allowing a back-door into their systems that provides sysadmin privileges to their whole network – we learned that this was a bad thing, and we’re still throwing rocks at the moon – they would have done their homework.

    Though Goldblum’s character would never have got that lucky opening – there might have been others, but unlikely, given the apparent technological sophistication represented.

  8. Aleksandar Kuktin

    @Al Feersum: Agreed. Bad movie (IMHO), and a bad example.

    But, nevertheless, in my humble opinion, the way forward is not led by geniuses, but by well-oiled conglomerates of educated people, drawing from present and past solutions to come to solutions better adapted to current problems; all of this happening in a finite universe with a finite number of problems and a finite number of possible solutions (and with some problems not having a solution).

  9. “The message in both versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that humanity’s greatest existential threat is itself.”

    Aliens are just a metaphor for ourselves. We will do the destroying, and why, because western society is built on the antisocial principles of capitalism. Surely it is obvious. Our characteristics are those of a social animal, and that is why we have an instinct to be moral. Morality is simply caring for and sharing with others — “Do unto others as you would be done by”. Yet capitalism fosters dog eat dog, might is right, selfishness is natural, and greed is a blessing of God. These are the characteristics of the solitary animal, and even the solitary mother loves her infant. Social animals are supposed to love each other. That, incidentally, is the teaching of Christianity, and America constantly boasts it is a Christian nation, when in terms of practice, as opposed to wishful thinking, it transparently is not. Even more paradoxically, the American political system buried socialism and communism, when they at least were attempting to bring the importance of human society to the forefront. Yep, the aliens are among us, but they are not the commies, they are the greedy and selfish accumulators of all our social assets, the bankers and financiers swapping their wealth here and there as long as it keep growing, and too bad for the rest of us. They are the ones in the spaceships, and the ones who need to be given a cold by some Goldblum-like genius.

  10. Thomas

    Assume that we instead were a lot more stupid, how many of those existensial threats would we still face? There still might be aliens or a rogue comet, but we wouldn’t have to worry about AI, nuclear war, genetically designed diseases etc. Maybe making ourselves more stupid would be a better solution, becoming more intelligent will just let us come up with new ways to get in trouble. Besides, in an armsrace against AI:s our descendants soon wouldn’t be recognizably humans anyway.

    Engineering people for becoming more ethical sounds great, assuming it’s everyone else that does it. That leaves the field open for my, non engineered, kids to take advantage of them. Unless you wish to impose a control state that forces everyone to undergo these changes I just don’t see how it would work. Unethical parents would cheat.

  11. Stolen Dormouse

    What I got out of Gattaca was not that the creation of genetically “optimal” humans will advance the species. Instead it was the story of one person’s will and desire overcoming his so-called genetic limitations.

    I found it interesting that the social darwinist society, with a kind of genetic caste system, had a pre-World War II feel with mid-21st century technology. (A bit more modern than “Steam Punk,” with a film noir feel.) Reminds me a bit of Alphaville in that way.

    Also, I enjoyed seeing Gore Vidal in an acting role, not just as the writer of someone else’s role.

  12. “…if machines become self-aware and start improving themselves, we’re going to have a problem.”
    This depends on who we are at that moment. When we will be able to create self-aware machines, I’m pretty sure we will also be able to enhance ourselves to the same level. Perhaps we will already be part of those machines. Machines will become more biological, people will become more machine. I suppose we’l meet somewhere in the middle.

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